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iNACOL's Virtual Schools and Beyond

In the year or two after Disrupting Class was published, I spoke at a lot of education technology conferences around the country. That wasn’t a surprise. Along with Clayton Christensen and Curtis Johnson, I had written a book suggesting that although technology had made little impact in education to this point despite some big investments in it, it was all about to change. If instead of layering technology over our existing monolithic system we embraced the power of disruptive innovation, then technology could be catalytic in creating a student-centric education system.

I was new to the edtech conference scene, but out of all the conferences at which I spoke, one in particular stood out: the Virtual School Symposium, which iNACOL, the international K-12 online learning association, held. At the event in Arizona in October of 2008, it became clear to me as I spoke that I was addressing the disruptive innovators about which we had written: those creating and implementing online learning.

Susan Patrick, iNACOL’s president, CEO, and visionary, has remarked on many occasions that when she was the director of the Office of Education Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, she saw a lot of education technology that was doing very little for students. But one stood out—online learning—as having the same transformational power in education as the personal computer did for computing. That’s why when she left the Department of Education, she invested her time with the online learning innovators.

For me, it was a breath of fresh air. So many (certainly not all of course) of the conferences at which I spoke had people with an old-edtech mindset, which wasn’t going to get this country to where it needed to go.

In the years since that conference, online learning’s power as a disruptive innovation has become clearer.

In classic form, for several years those most interested in reforming education ignored its potential. Perhaps they saw it as a nice thing on the fringes of education, but they didn’t believe it would have significant impact.

Although it started in areas of what we call nonconsumption—where the alternative was nothing—online learning has, as a generalized statement, continued to improve, as all disruptive innovations do. Increasingly online learning is less and less of something that just happens in full-time virtual schools, and more and more something that takes place in blended-learning ones. Millions of students are now learning online in brick-and-mortar schools, in a variety of forms. The improvements hold huge potential to transform our education system. Since Disrupting Class came out, I’ve been amazed by how many people who at first ignored online learning, are now paying attention to it.

The Virtual School Symposium has kept pace. As Tom Vander Ark wrote recently, when he joined the iNACOL board three years ago, he “was hoping to see a shift in emphasis from virtual schools to a focus on helping all schools incorporate online and personal digital learning.” That shift has happened. The conference has grown and improved with the innovation—and in many cases is continuing to push and lead it.

A couple weeks ago, I once again attended the Virtual School Symposium. I left more energized than I could have imagined. iNACOL continues to push the field toward adopting performance standards based on actual and meaningful student outcomes—read their latest report released at the conference to learn more. It is leading the drive toward creating a competency-based learning system that moves beyond our flawed time-based one. And, despite the conference’s name, it has embraced online learning in all its forms, in particular in blended and next-generation learning models. iNACOL isn’t an education technology conference per se; it’s about creating a student-centric learning system, which is what distinguishes it. Technology is just the medium to do this, but it’s not the imperative in and of itself.

There is no guarantee, of course, that online learning will fulfill this potential. As stories in the media attest to, just because something is “online learning” doesn’t mean it is good. Nor is every “good” online learning experience right for everyone. Online learning has the potential to transform our education system, but the path forward will not be straight. Caution, skepticism and guidance are all important. This is why iNACOL’s presence and the conference that it runs are so important in continuing to push the field toward its higher potential.

What also excited me this year, however, went beyond iNACOL pushing the field to innovate to improve learning for all students. Different education innovators chose VSS this year as their hosting ground to convene a variety of meetings around the conference to push them all to continue to transform learning by problem solving with one another. Seeing these meetings occur—behind the glitz and glamour of the tools and various demos—is what inspired. The grassroots convenings focused on self-improvement that took place around the larger convening is a heartening sign, and it’s a good sign that iNACOL made a concerted effort to support and embrace them.

With 2,100 people in attendance this year—from providers to charter and district teachers to private school leaders—it’s clear the change is on. The bigger challenge now lies ahead as the disruption seeks to fulfill its bigger potential.

Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the nonprofit Innosight Institute, a think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector

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